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Happy hour less than cheerful in Vancouver’s gay village

Davie Street bars struggle to implement new BC liquor laws

Josh Belford and Sebastian Trudeau, sitting on the Fountainhead Pub’s patio on Davie Street, are less than happy with the BC government’s new happy hour regulations. Credit: Shauna Lewis

Higher beer costs are making BC’s new happy hour anything but in Vancouver’s gay village, as bar managers adjust to new liquor pricing regulations and thirsty patrons are forced to dig deeper into their wallets.

The BC government implemented another recommendation from its liquor policy review on June 20, allowing bars, pubs and restaurants to offer discounted drinks in the afternoon, provided they adhere to the province’s new minimum drink prices.

“Implementing minimum drink prices is an important part of our commitment to protect health and safety, as we move forward on modernizing BC’s liquor laws,” Attorney General Suzanne Anton said in a press release. “In setting the minimum price, it was important to us that we listened to both industry and health advocates. We have done that and I believe establishing a $3 per drink minimum achieves a good balance for them, and for British Columbians.”

Under the new legislation, the minimum price for a 1.5-ounce cocktail, a five-ounce glass of wine or a 12-ounce sleeve of beer is $3. The minimum price for a 20-ounce sleeve of beer is $5. The price restrictions were put in place to encourage “responsible consumption,” Anton says.

Pub managers in the gay village say they are still grappling with ways to implement the legislation, since many of their patrons are accustomed to paying less than $5 for 20 ounces of beer.

“It was a shock to them,” says PumpJack Pub owner Vince Marino of the price hike that raised his $2.90 pints of beer to $5 on Sundays.

“The whole point of coming here on a Sunday afternoon was for cheap beer, and now they can’t have that because of happy hour,” PumpJack patron Stuart McKay says. “It used to be $8 for a pitcher, and now it’s double that. Happy hour doesn’t benefit anyone.”

Marino says he isn’t against the new liquor regulations but thinks the changes are rolling out too quickly to implement properly. “We’re sort of catching our breath on each case,” he said.

“It’s kind of idiotic,” Score manager Rob Turpin agrees.

Turpin thinks raising the price of his $4 beer by a dollar is bad for business. “I’m not going to raise my prices for happy hour, or the idea of happy hour, if our prices are already lower. We don’t want to drive people away,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not really ‘happy’ at all.”

Douglas Scott, the assistant deputy minister and general manager of BC’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, says the government will loosely monitor compliance to happy-hour liquor pricing.

“Liquor inspectors will continue their routine inspections and, when necessary, remind licensees that the new minimum prices are in place,” he says. “If a liquor inspector finds that a licensee was not aware of the minimum prices, he or she will share the new policies with that licensee, take the time to ensure they understand the changes, and follow up at a later date.”

However, Scott says that if a pub is intentionally non-compliant with the new minimum pricing, “it will face a contravention notice and possible enforcement action.”

Most gay pubs say they will adjust to the guidelines.

“We’re just following suit with what the government asked, and we’ve had to increase the cost of some of our specials to meet that standard,” says Andrew Watling, bar manager at the Fountainhead Pub.

Watling says the pub’s managers are exploring ways that patrons can get “more bang for their buck” while abiding by a regulation that seems contradictory. “I think with the happy hour and minimum drink standards being released at the same time, it’s sort of taking away from the idea of the happy hour,” he says.

“It’s more of an ‘unhappy hour’ than anything,” agrees Sebastian Trudeau, who was enjoying a beer at the Fountainhead with his friend Josh Belford.

“Everyone wanted to have happy hour for cheaper drinks, and that’s not happening at all,” Belford says.

“It’s just another money grab for the government,” Trudeau says.

“I think the government has their fingers where they shouldn’t and they should leave our drinks alone,” Fountainhead patron Randy Brooks says. “There shouldn’t be a minimum.”

The government disagrees. “We’ve heard some concern around beer pricing since we made the announcement last week,” Scott says. “But let’s be clear: when you take the report as a whole, minimum pricing is one of the most critical changes we’re making in support of public safety.”

If he can’t offer patrons cheap pints on “Kegger Sundays,” Marino says, the PumpJack will find a way to offer patrons specials for happy hour.

Watling also says cocktails and food specials will be offered at the Fountainhead to counter the higher beer costs. “We’re trying to put the ‘happy’ back in happy hour,” he says.   

Other liquor law changes introduced June 20 mean patrons can now carry an alcoholic beverage from a restaurant to an adjoining lounge, licensees can now transfer small amounts of liquor between a pub and a restaurant, and farmers’ markets can now sell wine and beer.

In January, the government endorsed 73 recommendations to change BC’s liquor laws, 14 of which have now been implemented. The province expects to have 70 percent of the recommendations completed by spring 2015.